Senior Research Fellow

Matsuki Kunitoshi

May 2022

On May 10, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration was born in South Korea. During his presidential campaign, Yoon Suk-yeol pledged to “work to restore the relationship between South Korea and Japan if elected,” which has elicited in some people in Japan the optimistic expectation that he was a pro-Japanese person and the Japan-South Korea relationship would take a turn for improvement. However, this was a big mistake and in reality, the confrontation between Japan and South Korea will enter a crucial phase from now on.

It is true that Yoon Suk-yeol’s father is an expert on Japan who once taught at Hitotsubashi University and Suk-yeol himself also has an experience of visiting Japan when he was younger. However, “knowledgeable about Japan” does not equal “pro-Japanese.”

One of the ancestors of the Yoon family was Yoon Bong-gil, who committed the Hongkew Park Bombingnote 1) in Shanghai in 1932 that killed and injured many people, including civilians. He, a merciless terrorist, is praised in South Korea as an anti-Japanese hero and a proud precursor of the Yoon family. It was natural that Yoon Suk-yeol chose the Yoon Bong-gil Memorial Hall as the venue of the press conference for announcing his candidacy for the presidential election.

In addition to his descent, Yoon Suk-yeol is from a generation that has been receiving intense anti-Japanese education since childhood, which has prevented the formation of any pro-Japanese ideas. Regarding the comfort women issue, he is convinced that “200,000 Korean women were forcibly taken away by the Japanese government and made into sex slaves.” He visited the “comfort women museum” in Daegu City, took the hand of Lee Yong-soo, who claims to have been a former comfort woman, and went so far as to pledge by hooking each other’s little finger to “obtain an apology from Japan for certain and heal the psychological wounds of you all.”

The Yoon administration has a rocky road ahead. There is no way that President Yoon Suk-yeol can solve structural problems overnight, such as the widening economic and social disparity, declining birthrate, and deteriorating export competitiveness. It is obvious that, if nothing is done, the Yoon administration will be held back by the opposition party, which has an overwhelming majority in the parliament, and lose the trust of the people, being unable to take effective economic measures.

If he cannot score points with internal affairs, the only way left is diplomacy. Yoon Suk-yeol should be thinking that, for the Yoon administration to maintain its approval rating, the most effective way is to normalize the extremely chilly relations between South Korea and Japan in line with South Korea’s point of view and make a display of his victory in diplomacy toward Japan.

He claims to “improve the relationship between South Korea and Japan” not because he is sympathetic toward Japan but because he has scrupulously calculated that it will bring him a diplomatic victory and strengthen his administration’s reputation.

Yoon Suk-yeol, well-versed in the Japanese ways of thinking, is assumed to know the “essence” of how to cajole the Japanese people. He is more likely to be a tough opponent for Japan than the former president Moon Jae-in, who was “simply anti-Japanese.”

The Yoon administration is anticipated to launch a major offensive concerning history issues soon after taking office.

And its preliminary skirmishes have already begun. Yoon Suk-yeol sent a “delegation for policy dialogue” to Japan toward the end of April and Chung Jin-suk, the head of the delegation, made a statement to the media at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, urging Japan to compromise on history issues: “No sound can be made with one hand. The two nations must make sincere efforts.”

In addition, foreign minister-candidate Park Jin stated at a personnel hearing held in the National Assembly of South Korea on May 2 that he would “respect the decision of the judicial branch” concerning the wartime workers’ trial. He also mentioned that Japan’s apology was required for solving the comfort women issue. That is, he declared that his office, as a representative of the Republic of Korea, would not compromise on the history issues.

Up to now, the government of Japan has maintained its legitimate perspective that “the Japanese Annexation of Korea was lawful,” “no forcible taking away by the Japanese authorities took place” and “the claim rights issue between Japan and South Korea has been resolved” based on historical facts. In order to undermine this, the Yoon administration aims to use backdoor tactics to involve Japan with the comfort women and wartime workers issues.

First, Yoon will throw the ball to Japan’s court saying that he “will make efforts to improve the relationship between Japan and South Korea but wants Japan to cooperate as well regarding the comfort women issue, wartime workers issue and Sado Gold Mine issue.” No doubt he also will ask the US President Biden for “cooperation to urge Japan to compromise because he wants the ‘Japan-US-ROK’ partnership reinforced in terms of security.” That is what the US wants, and the US may also put pressure on Japan saying that, if the ball is in Japan’s court, Japan should take South Korea’s claim into account to strengthen the partnership. The defense and offence may change positions in diplomatic negotiations.

If that happens, the public opinion of Japan will also change. If the opponent was Lee Jae-myung, who repeats his anachronistic assertion that they should “be prepared for Japan’s invasion of the continent,” few Japanese would have been sympathetic to South Korea. However, with Yoon Suk-yeol, who apparently takes a conciliatory stance toward Japan, public opinion may be split. Major mass media under the control of the leftists will start a chorus of “The Japanese government should lend an ear to South Korea’s claims.” It is expected that, in talk shows, commentators who disregard the national interest will make one hypocritical remark after another that misleads the people such as “The Japanese government should not persist but get along well with the neighbor.” There is a possibility that public opinion may come around to Japan-Korea reconciliation at once.

However, at the root of South Korea’s logic is the historical perception that “the Japanese rule of Korea was unlawful colonial occupation and all activities conducted by the Japanese government and businesses were unlawful.” That is why they are making far-fetched claims that “free recruitment,” “official placement” and “requisition,” which were conducted lawfully, were all “unlawful forced mobilization.” If Japan lends an ear to South Korea’s claims and makes any concession, it will mean that Japan has empathized with South Korea’s logic of “unlawful colonial occupation.” That is, Japan will be considered to have voluntarily withdrawn its legitimate view maintained in the negotiations for the Japan-Korea Basic Relations Treaty that “the Japanese rule was lawful also in terms of international law.”

This is quite appalling. Tax collection and draft by the Government-General of Chosen will all be declared unlawful, and the profits made by Japanese businesses in the Korean Peninsula during the period of occupation will be labeled as “exploitation.” Everything may become a target of lawsuits and compensation on the ground that it was against Korean people’s will, not to mention the comfort women and wartime workers issues. The idea of no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity is becoming international common sense and South Korea may endlessly keep demanding apology and compensations from Japan. The honor of Japan will be impaired and a reconciliation between Japan and South Korea will never be reached.

Then, what should be done is to formally communicate Japan’s legitimate perspective that “everything has been resolved” to Yoon Suk-yeol before it is too late and secure South Korea’s commitment to observance of treaties and agreements concluded between Japan and South Korea. He was once the prosecutor general and should be unable to argue back if challenged based on law.

On that basis, Japan should candidly say to Yoon Suk-yeol that the main culprit of the hostility between Japan and South Korea is South Korea’s historical perception that twists the facts. If he cannot understand 100%, it will be sufficient if he recognizes that the two countries have their own positions and how meaningless it is to unconditionally force the logic of the one on the other. If he is a “man of faith,” there is a possibility that he will persuade the people, have the comfort women statues, a nasty harassment to Japan, removed, and resolve the issue of compensation to wartime workers internally to pave the way to true reconciliation between Japan and South Korea.

This is a crucial point for the Japanese government. Diplomacy is a pushing contest and not a compromise at all. Easy concession and consideration will only show weaknesses to the other party. For realizing true friendly relations between Japan and South Korea and for the national interest of Japan and the future of our children and grandchildren, the Kishida administration now must take a firm attitude to make a point to South Korea that Japan’s intention is to “never accept unreasonable demands based on twisted history” without being misled by any cajolery or sophistry of South Korea and without playing up to frivolous public opinion.

Note 1) Shanghai Hongkew Park Bombing
A terrorist bombing incident that occurred in Hongkew Park in Shanghai on April 29, 1932. A ceremony to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Showa was held on that day, in the presence of leaders of Japan gathered on the stage. While the national anthem Kimigayo was being sung in unison, Yoon Bong-gil threw a powerful bomb toward the center of the stage. The victims are as listed below.
Killed instantaneously: Kawabata Sadaji (doctor), Chairman of the Administrative Committee of the Japanese Resident's Association of Shanghai
Seriously injured: General Shirakawa Yoshinori, Commander of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force (died of the injuries one month later)
Lieutenant General Ueda Kenkichi, Commander of the 9th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Navy Vice Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo, Commander of the 3rd Fleet (lost an eye)
Shigemitsu Mamoru, Japanese Envoy in Shanghai (lost a leg; later successively served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Hatoyama and other cabinets)
Murai Kuramatsu, Japanese Consul-General in Shanghai
Tomono Shigeru, Chief Secretary of the Japanese Resident's Association of Shanghai
Yoon Bong-gil, the culprit, attempted to kill himself on the spot, when he was caught and arrested by the military police of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and, after a court-martial, he was executed by a firing squad at Kanazawa Prison on December 19.

< Supplementary note: This article is to the same effect as the opinion in writing dated March 30, 2022, sent to Sakurai Yoshiko, President of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, which has been revised in accordance with the inauguration of the new President of the Republic of Korea. >